Grad student's project promotes
better health for area teenagers
By Sally Harris
Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 32 - June 5, 1997
Every Wednesday for six weeks, Pulaski County High School sophomore Faith Griffiths had to go to health class and report what she had eaten the day before. "So on Tuesdays, I ate good things, and that kind of leaked over into other days," she said.
Griffiths was part of a Virginia Tech project to promote health behaviors among high-school students in rural, medically under-served areas of Virginia. She and other students in Maggie Manning's health and physical-education class at Pulaski County High School took part in The Eat-4-Life Program funded by a $98,000 grant from the Virginia Health Care Foundation and carried out by psychology graduate students Deborah Tate and Tina Russ under the direction of Professor Richard Winett.
Developed in the form of a teen health magazine on the Internet, the program promotes regular eating patterns, the increase of fruits, vegetables, and fiber in the diet, and the decrease of consumption of sugar-based sodas, high-fat snacks, and high-fat dairy products and candy.
Once each week beginning April 9 and ending May 28, Griffith and 17 other tenth-grade girls such as Carrie Hall and Marlena Taylor attended focus-group meetings in which the computerized "magazine" assessed their eating habits, gave them information about nutrition, let them pick ways to change their diets, then helped them determine new strategies for any that did not work. The individualized nature of the program, the teen-magazine format that included famous people's eating habits, and the introduction of new foods by Tate and Rush opened their eyes, the three participants said.
"I think going in there makes you think about what you eat and what you do," Hall said. "You're more aware of what you're eating."
"And sometimes what you're not eating," Griffith said, adding that she realized she had not been eating enough fruits and vegetables.
"I cut down on a lot of sweets," Taylor said. "Instead of a candy bar, I bring an apple or dry cereal or low-fat crackers."
The three indicated they think the program will result in some permanent changes in their eating habits. "I've gotten into a good habit lately," Taylor said.
Manning said the program, presented to complement the regular one-week nutrition course in her health and physical-education class, reinforces the regular classroom work. "It's really making them think," she said. "Some are making changes, not monumental changes, but changes."
Tate and Russ created the series of computer modules and wrote the scripts to teach the high-school students how to make simple dietary changes that would lead to substantial health benefits if followed throughout life. They worked with Manning and with existing computers in the school so that the participants would have a half-hour program once each week, including printouts of their progress. "It's very personalized," Tate said, "and provides feedback to what each child does."
In addition to the modules, Tate and Russ provided the students with samples of nutritious foods such as low-fat cereals and candy bars to alert them to alternatives to unhealthy snacking. They picked snacks that reinforced the week's nutrition lesson, that had low price tags, and that contained high fiber, which helps prevent "the munchies."
The modules and process of the program were developed using results of prior research done at Virginia Tech's Center for Research and Health Behavior, headed by Winett. The project involves two classes, one that accesses the Internet and one that does not. When the research is completed, Tate and Russ will assess both classes to see if the outcomes are different based on the use of computers.
In addition, they have begun a large-scale assessment of ninth-grade boys and girls to determine their dietary practices, exercise habits, and tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco. The information will provide the basis for developing a second part of the program if funding is available.